By Teresa Welsh |
As President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney squared off in Denver Wednesday night, the biggest loser was Michelle Obama, who had to spend her 20th wedding anniversary watching a political debate, informative and civil as it was.
The second loser was Governor Romney.
On some issues, the candidates agreed: reduce the deficit, reduce taxes, grow the middle class and invest in renewable energy. On many of the policies, they disagreed: the role of government, healthcare, and education policy. But Governor Romney's loss was not a "loss" on the substance of the issues but rather a loss on the process. Governor Romney's presentation didn't adequately take advantage of the form or function of modern debates.
Governor Romney was on the defensive from the start, prompted by President Obama's first response to the question from moderator Jim Lehrer to provide "contrasts" between the two candidates. But, rather than extending his own narrative and priming the issues of interest to him, the Republican candidate felt the need to respond to every point made by President Obama, both germane and nongermane. Governor Romney wanted to beat the President "piece by piece" but the president wanted to win. The difference is that it isn't necessary in these formats to beat the other candidate on every point but to win by presenting yourself as a candidate of ideas and vision. An animated Governor Romney seemed overeager to address every issue, a strategy best reserved for arguments in traffic court, high school debate, or arguments with your spouse.
President Obama may not have won on every point but he used the debate as a forum for ideas and vision, much more conducive to the style of modern presidential debates. A true debate would involve cross examination and more intercandidate discussion. This is not the format of modern presidential debates which tend to function more like dueling press conferences than a contest of clashing oratory. President Obama often spoke to the camera (signaling to the public that it was time to listen), while Governor Romney spent much of his time directing his responses to President Obama or the moderator.
The governor was drawn into a debate about the minutiae of the issues or the politics of the process—this creates a debate about the past, not the future. This tactic is especially problematic for Governor Romney who was not fully specific about his plans for healthcare, job growth, or tax policy; as President Obama was able to quip, "This seems to be a trend." Governor Romney was specific about how the economy is lagging ("the economy tax") and the nation is struggling under the Obama administration, but this narrative does not advance a compelling enough reason to vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket. Governor Romney missed an opportunity to weave his vision for the country with his specific policies as they stood in contrast to the Obama administration's policies.
My scorecard had President Obama winning, but only by TKO.
About Brandon Rottinghaus Associate Professor at the University of Houston
Lara Brown Assistant Professor at Villanova University
Jamal Simmons Principal at The Raben Group